Restoring Rural Hope
Many rural families struggle at the ragged edges of poverty. While relying on government financial assistance, they still need extra help, and churches are often filling the gap. Iberia First Assembly of God (IFA) formed The Well Rural Resource, a nonprofit that offers Christlike hope for needy families in the Missouri community of 740.
“The size of our town and the size of our church should not limit the size of our vision,” says Pastor Chip J. Sanders, 43. “Just like in the inner city, God works in rural communities that face poverty issues and drugs.”
Sanders and his wife, Rebekah, and their five children moved to Iberia in 2012 from Bethany, Illinois, where he pastored Abundant Life Assembly of God. A fourth-generation pastor, Sanders felt called to rural communities, where many residents are embedded in a cycle of generational poverty, broken marriages, and addiction. A good share of grandparents and even great-grandparents barely survive on meager Social Security checks while raising youngsters. Individual futures remain bleak.
“We try to inspire a vision of restoration through Jesus,” Sanders says.
Nearby cattle, hog, and turkey farms offer few employment opportunities for residents of Iberia, located near Lake of the Ozarks. Many locals commute up to 50 miles a day for work in Jefferson City, Columbia, or Fort Leonard Wood. More than 20 percent live in poverty.
Sanders learned about Iberia’s shadowed needs while serving as a volunteer firefighter, which cemented his ties to the community. He stays on call during the day when most other firefighters are away at workplaces. As the department’s unofficial chaplain, he offers prayer and spiritual support during tragedies. Just his presence opens opportunities for ministering to families, as well as to fire, police, and emergency medical personnel.
Listening and learning about the community prompted Sanders to start a nonprofit organization in 2016 to generate funds for practical needs. He connected with partners who helped with startup expenses and advised him how to handle the paperwork for grant funding.
“We want to be a model for rural ministries to restore those who have lost hope,” Sanders says.
The nonprofit began operating from IFA, which has around 55 Sunday morning attendees. In June 2018, providential timing opened a path to assume the mortgage of a 9,500 square-foot building in the town center. As The Well’s executive director, Rebekah Sanders oversees a range of programs: community services, a thrift store, food pantry, and diaper bank. The Well plans on launching a self-serve laundry, coffee shop, and summer youth programs. The organization also is raising funds for office space for dental, medical, and mental health services by partnering with a rural medical clinic.
For young families and single mothers and fathers, diapers represent an urgent expense. Local day-care centers require parents to have a daily supply for each child. If a parent cannot provide the diapers, she or he must stay home with their children, losing a day’s pay. The Well fills that need, and will give away 30,000 diapers in 2019.
Megan Keeth faced a dilemma when her husband was laid off for two months. She had to choose whether to buy a gallon of milk and lunch meat, or diapers for her three children. “The Well was a blessing providing for us,” she says.
Vicki Baucom, a family advocate with the Missouri Ozarks Community Action Head Start Program volunteers in the food pantry. She packs boxes and carries them out to vehicles. Needy people arrive from all walks of life. No one is turned away.
“People are very grateful for the help,” says Baucom, who joined IFA last August with her husband, Cliff. “They pour out their hearts telling us about losing a job and having the electricity or water services turned off. Some seniors are torn between paying for medicine or food.”
Mayor Walter Moreland says the community has benefited from the impact of the organization.
“Pastor Chip and The Well Rural Resource are having a positive impact on our town and making a big difference,” Moreland says.